As a disclaimer, my title is misleading. I can’t claim I ran 40 kilometers in a day. Calling a walk would be a bit generous, too. It was a slog completed not step by step but by inch by inch, tiptoe by tiptoe. Semantics aside, here’s how I covered a little over 40 kilometers on foot without training.
Within a few hours of the Facebook event being posted, it made its way around my chat groups. Want to push yourself? The description asked. Want to see what you’re made of? The event detailed a race from Vuda Marina to Vaturu Dam, an 80-kilometer out-and-back stretch featured on Eco Challenge Fiji’s World’s Toughest Race. As an afterthought, the description noted, This is not an easy walk. The run was organized by Adam and a few other participants from the show.
The event required all runners to be self sufficient with their own food, water, communication, and means to get out if things get hairy. The course would be open from 4:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., wedged in between Fiji’s curfew hours.
No entry fees. No prizes.
The challenge was 19 days away, leaving no time to properly train for it. I opted not to bother and instead stuck with my routine of surfing, swimming, and weight training a few times per week. I didn’t go on a single run the month leading to the event. People committed, then bailed, committed then bailed. Two days before the challenge, my friend Ella and I wondered if we should even attempt it at all. During a four minute phone call, we decided to just go for it. The next day, she convinced our friend Norman to join in on the adventure. He mentioned that the longest run he’d ever been on was 10 km, and that was years ago.
The day before, I rushed into town to buy a few snacks and rehydration salts. I tore apart my room putting together a makeshift first aid kit with tape, band aids, and antiseptic spray. I tried on all of my backpacks—each too bulky to comfortably wear at any speed faster than a slow trot. But, they’d have to do.
3:00 a.m.: I wake up 45 minutes before my alarm and pack my backpack with water, snacks, and a first aid kit. It feels heavy and I wonder if the straps will chafe my armpits. I pack two extra bags with water and cross my fingers I’ll be able to find a support car to throw them into. I’m not hungry, but scarf down half a blueberry muffin for the carbs and sugar. It’s pitch black outside. I thrown on some sunscreen because there’s a good chance I’ll forget to do it later.
I have two goals for the day:
Go as far as I can
Don’t get injured
4:00 a.m.: I meet Ella and Norman and we drive a short distance to the starting line. We missed the briefing the night before, so one of the organizers gives us a quick run-down and prompts us to install a GPS app so that the organizers can keep an eye on our location throughout the day. There are about 50 runners in at the marina, 40 more than the organizers expected. A crew of emergency responders zip up their first aid kits and we all wait for the race to begin.
Some of the runners are participating as a relay team. Two teams let me throw my bags with spare water bottles in the back of their truck. The bulky backpack I’m wearing feels like a turtle shell, a stark contrast to Ella’s get-up which is simply a pack of Skittles in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. I make a mental note to finish my water before arriving at the gas station, the first hydration stop.
4:45 a.m.: The race is off to a slow start. Rather than firing out of the gate like most races, most of us speed walk or trudge along in a slow jog. I have no plans to keep up with Ella, reigning champion of “Fiji’s Toughest Run” half marathon. Norman is right behind her. Within the first few minutes, some runners veer off into a path that follows train tracks rather than the main road. Afraid of getting lost, I opt for the main road route and the pack of runners thins out. Within minutes, it’s just me and the beam of my headtorch burning along a dark road.
5:30 a.m.: I plan to cover as much ground as I can before sunrise, while it’s still cool out and while the road is relatively flat. I run past a few houses and enter a dark corner of the neighborhood. A pack of six dogs bolt out of their front yard, growling and barking. How dare I walk near their property! Fuck. I’m terrified of dogs. My heart races and my palms break out into a sweat. I don’t look back at them. My stomach tightens, bracing my body for impact. After about 50 meters, the snarling dogs back off and let me go in peace.
5:45 a.m: I pop out at Queens Road, one of the busiest roads on the island and it’s that’s eerily quiet at this hour. The sky turns pink and sleepy homes rumble to life, roosters yodeling. I’m still rattled about the dog experience. Will I be spending the whole day dodging dogs? A runner passes me and I follow his light for a while. With the gas station on my radar, I chug a Powerade and finish the rest of my water.
6:00 a.m.: I reach the gas station, about 11 kms from our starting point, and check in with a group of smiling volunteers. I hand a pile of sweaty coins to the gas station attendant who asks, “So, where are you all going?” I mention the dam and she raises her eyebrows. This is the only major turn on the course, and I’ll be following the same road 30 kilometers to Vaturu Dam.
Quiet homes with tidy gardens line the road. One has a cow tethered to a coconut tree. I stop to take a picture of a stilted house with a group of cows lounging in its yard. I pass a small Hindu temple and incense trails behind me as I run.
6:30 a.m.: I spot a pack of dogs ahead and freeze. “Are they mean?” I holler, startling a man sitting quietly on his porch. He walks to the gate I’m clinging onto, I’m about ready to hop over it. “They shouldn’t bite,” he offers with a shrug. I keep walking, frustrated that this man doesn’t know the nuances of each and every dog’s behavior in his town. One dog walks over to me, tail wagging and head waiting to be pet. The other dogs barely raise their eyes. Every few houses, I stop and wait for someone to notice me before the dogs do. They’re all caught a little off guard when I ask them if there are mean dogs up ahead. While I’m usually shy to talk to strangers, my quest to get through this day bite-free emboldens me—though I realize it’s also not an efficient use of my time.
6:45 a.m.: I spot a woman with curly grey hair talking to two men up ahead. In between us are two dogs with their hair raised, who bark and race towards me. The woman notices my fear and claps, shooing the dogs away, chuckling to herself while accompanying me for a few hundred meters. I’m so tough, I’ve enlisted an elderly woman to be my personal bodyguard.
7:00 a.m.: Just as I’m crouched in a gravel pit searching for the perfect rock to tuck into my pocket, I spot Adam out of the corner of my eye. I chuck the rock over my shoulder. If a pack comes after us, I’ll hide behind him.
I bombard Adam with questions about what it was like to participate in Eco Challenge Fiji: The World’s Toughest Race, a grueling 10+ day course that took participants through some of the toughest terrain in the country. Though many teams dropped out, Fiji’s flags made it across the finish line.
9:00 a.m.: Adam flag downs his support truck and refuel. I tape a few budding blisters on my feet and regret my shoe choice. The trucks carrying my stash bags, complete with the shoes I’d rather run in, are way up ahead. I won’t see them until they’re on their way back.
I stick with Adam for about 10km more and hear Eco Challenge stories straight from the source. When the tarmac road cedes to one made of red dirt, I no longer have to worry about dogs.
The road weaves through a small village where bright clothes pegged on the lines blow against a bright green backdrop. We’re well away from the coastline now, and it feels like I’m entering the heart of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island. Chickens scratch at the grass, horses blink under the strong sun. Feeling good, I think I’ll attempt to do the full distance.
At the 26km mark, I stop to tape a blister forming on the side of my big toe. Apparently it’s only uphill from here on out, and my pace has slowed to a crawl. I trail behind Adam and wave for him to go ahead without me. Every now and then, a support truck comes by to offer snacks, water, and a boost to morale.
9:45 am: Six calves lounging in the shade greet me as I near the top of the first major hill. It’s the perfect place to sit and have a snack, allowing me to rethink my day’s strategy. At this pace, I’ll be back on Queen’s Road after sunset—not an appealing thought in the slightest. At that time, there’s bound to be crazy drivers and crazy dogs. Adding myself to the mix would be nothing but crazy.
At around the 30km mark, pain in my knee grabs my attention. When yet another hill appears—longer and steeper than the last—the experience no longer feels enjoyable. Slogs up and down these hills are only broken by a few people who emerge from the settlements and provide short stints of company. On child riding a horse trots alongside me, patting its rump in a gesture that asked if I wanted a ride. I do want a ride, but I want to see how far I can go even more.
Three kids follow me for a kilometer or two, so shy I started to think of them as a trio of shadows. They never let themselves break ahead of me, and every question asked was answered with a giggle.
One of the support trucks with my supplies inside stopped to let me swap out my shoes. My swollen feet feel an instant relief. Shortly after, I saw a friend who’d made it to the dam and was now catching a ride back.
11:00 am: Whenever I stopped to ask someone how far away the dam was, they’d answer, “Very far.”
Still? The next support vehicles tell me the dam is 10km away, then 3km, and then 7km. So, I am somewhere between 3 and 10km away. Which was it? The hills seemed to only get steeper. My steps are microscopic. I make reaching the dam my goal, knowing that there’s no way I’ll make it back to the starting point before curfew, especially if I don’t want to injure myself or get mauled by the dogs near Queens Road.
A relax truck team catches me and I run alongside a few newfound friends. The relay team has a hop-on hop-off system, where you jump in and out of the truck as you please. Many of them skip the uphill sections, feeling free as they fly with fresh legs on the steep descents.
Knowing Ella and Norman are ahead has spurred me on throughout the day, and eventually I spot them coming back from the dam. The finish line suddenly doesn’t seem so far away.
On the last hill to the dam, the truck slows to offer me a ride, and the driver warns me that this next hill is bound to go on “forever.” But, knowing it’s the last, it’d be ridiculous to catch a ride now, so I trundle on. One of my new friends takes pity on me and leaves the truck to run alongside me. We say nothing, both struggling to breathe as we steam up the hill. Near the top, he tells me this is his first run like this, and adds that it’ll be his last. I make a mental note to train beforehand if I ever want to do it again, urging myself not to succumb to post suffer-fest amnesia that often accompanies these sorts of adventures. We high five at the top.
1:00 pm: Finally, I reach a gate with Vaturu Dam posted on top of it. Other runners are gathered around the gate, and my friend Paul has parked himself in the bed of a truck. The view is anticlimactic considering all the other panoramas on the run. Trucks rumble back to the marina, and I wedge myself into the back of one and spot Anna, another eco-challenge competitor. We cheer on the runners attempting to make their way back to the marina. Rain pours, and the trail turns to peanut butter. The concrete road strips are already slick.
Back at the marina, I want to relax but am scared that if I rest, I won’t be able to get back up. My legs feel like lead and back at the room, Norman and Ella are also struggling with movement. We’re all in a state of giddiness, pride, and exhaustion.
5:00 pm: My friend Andy asks if I want to meet for dinner. Despite making it to the dam at breakneck speed, he isn’t sore at all and has more energy at the end of the race than I did at the start. I drive the dinner venue, despite it being just a 400m walk away. We connect with the other runners, hobbling from table to table.
We crowd the finish line to cheer for the only person to run the full distance of the race, all on his own. He arrives before sunset, a full four hours before the cut-off time. Running that distance through the heat and rain is no easy feat.
8:00 pm: Just as I’m about to crawl into bed, I remember my stash bags that are still with my friend’s relay team. I wander through the resort until I hear a party happening inside one of the villas, it has to be them. As soon as I step foot inside, the group hands me beer and cake. It’s never felt more deserved.